Irradiating SF

MIT Press is reissuing Joshua Glenn's The Radium Age series

Irradiating SF

When it comes to warfare, it's often said that history is written by the winners: they're the ones who have the power and position to explain why things turned out the way they did. Those who survive get to tell the story.

That doesn't just apply to warfare: I've been thinking quite a bit about it as I've been thinking about the history of science fiction: how did the story of science fiction come to be the way that it was, and in the telling, what parts of that larger story was ignored or sidelined?

MIT Press is launching a new project today: it's publishing a new series, The Radium Age, which'll be edited by Joshua Glenn, which will examine the works that came before the Golden Age of science fiction — works that he believes held a great influence on the genre that followed, and which have largely been forgotten.

The first installment, Voices from the Radium Age, comes out today. Edited by Glenn, it's a collection of shorter works by authors like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, W. E. B. Du Bois, and more, all published between 1905 and 1931. After that, the press will release J.D. Beresford's A World of Women, originally published in 1913.

Other installments will hit bookstores later in the year. May brings E.V. Odle's 1920 novel The Clockwork Man, and H.G. Wells' The World Set Free, August will see Of One Blood by Pauline Hopkins and Nordenholt's Million by J.J. Connington, and Rose Macaulay's What Not will debut in October. Other titles, like Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton, and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and The Poison Belt will come in 2023.

According to Glenn, the series is designed to shed light on an under-appreciated era of the literature, one that's largely been ignored or downplayed by genre scholars. Despite that lack of attention, it was an era of radical improvisation and experimentation on the part of the period's writers, and while many of those works contain inherent flaws of their times, they held plenty of influence for the works and authors that would follow.  

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There's a somewhat simplified history of science fiction: Mary Shelley helped kick off the genre when she wrote Frankenstein in 1818, and she was soon followed by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. After that early period, Hugo Gernsback — who'd read and loved those prior authors, launched his first "Scientifiction" magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926, which is widely acknowledged as the "start" of the modern genre.

After a decade or so of pulp stories, John W. Campbell Jr. took the reins of Astounding Science Fiction and helped transform the genre with a pivotal issue in 1939, the acknowledged start of the "Golden Age", which ran through the Second World War, and into the 1950s, after which we saw the rise of the New Wave of Science Fiction, in which creators pushed against those tropes and trends that were popular during the prior age, and after that, we get into the late 1970s and 1980s, when the sensibilities of cyberpunk became a thing.

That's an overly-broad, surface-level description of the genre's history, one that ignores plenty of authors, creators, and movements that were all happening simultaneously throughout all of those periods. History isn't so much a straight line as it is a river, all with weird current and eddies that move in and out of one another.

Those authors and editors who took an active role in the shaping of the field, editors like Campbell, fans like Sam Moskowitz, and authors like Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein all helped to hone the narrative of what science fiction was: something that they were building as a reaction against what they perceived as a more primitive form of the then-present field in which they found themselves. That origin story would eventually be further codified as authors and genre historians like Brian Aldiss and Thomas Disch put their own stamp on the field through books like The Trillion Year Spree and The Stuff Dreams are Made Of, books that provide excellent overviews of how science fiction developed over decades.

And as with any historical work, it's never a static thing: there are always new discoveries and interpretation that change how we see the past. That's where Glenn comes in. A voracious reader, he had begun reading adventure stories from the 20th century, and had become fascinated with the types of early science fiction stories that he'd been coming across, and unsatisfied with how genre historians had typically portrayed that era. So, he set out to conduct his own examination of the era.

Image: Andrew Liptak

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"Back in the early 2000s, I started feeling like I probably had missed out on a lot of good adventure fiction," Glenn explained to me from his home in Boston. A life-long reader, he noted that it wasn't uncommon for him to read a several books a week. He'd become interested in the early years of adventure fiction, and had begun reading whatever he could find — science fiction, spy stories, tales of survival, and the like. "I was reading kind of randomly, haphazardly, and wasn't being systematic. So I started this massive project, which I really just wrapped up early last year, where I decided I was going to try and figure out what the ten best adventure novels of every year of the 20th century were."

It sounds like a daunting project, and he spent years identifying authors and their works to read, all of which he began documenting on his website, HiLoBrow. "In the process of doing that, I got interested in searching for science fiction that I might not know about, and I read Brian Aldiss's Billion/Trillion Year Spree.

"I found something unsatisfying in that book," he explained. "It's a very good book: I like Brian Aldiss a lot as a science fiction writer and as a historian, but [while] he's very glowing about the scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, and so forth, and he's really into the Golden Age of Science Fiction. But he really kind of glosses over this 30-year period in between, [saying] that Wells loses his way starting around the turn of the century and just becomes a sort of propagandist for his ideas. There's some truth to that — Wells' great period is the late 19th century, but I think Aldiss, being an English person, thinks of that being the era of pulp fiction, where a lot of it wasn't very good, just cranked out as fast as possible by authors looking to make a buck, and most of it wasn't worth spending your time on."

That attitude bothered Glenn. "That didn't feel right to me: I thought there must be more than that, more than just George Orwell's Brave New World, or Yevgeny Zamyatin's We."

The Golden Age of science fiction, he explained, was something of a contemporaneous term, one coined by the likes of Asimov and Campbell while they were writing it. "It wasn't like something that we later settled was the Golden Age," he explained, "they called it that, because they were trying to distinguish themselves from what they considered a kind of embarrassing adolescence, schlocky pulp science fiction and the films that were coming out in the 1930s."  

As he began reading up on this era of early adventure and science fiction, he received an invite to write up his findings for a then-new science fiction blog: Gawker's io9. Founded by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, the site was an exploration of all types of nerd-related content, from movie commentary to deep dives into science fiction's weird, twisted path. Glenn's work was a perfect fit.

Newitz had known Glenn throughout the 1990s: "he and I were both creating zines," they told me in an email. "We were zinesters!

"We were both in our own way trying to connect the world of theory and academia to pop culture and everyday concerns," Glenn said. "They knew I was interested in science fiction and writing about the history of history, science fiction, and adventures," and they invited him to join them. He decided to set himself a goal: "why don't I focus on this really weird, obscure period that people don't seem to know much about or say isn't very good?"

Newitz explained that they had known about the early 20th century's science fiction: I had read Herland and Brave New World," they said, "but to my knowledge, nobody had tried to periodize it and give it a name the way historians have with "golden age" or "new wave" science fiction."

From there, Glenn gave himself a series of assignments, looking for books about specific tropes or stories, like books about robots or supermen. Relying on obscure academic texts like Everett F. Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years, and began branching out to other sources to track down the works of those early authors.

He initially took to calling his work the "Pre-Golden Age", but ended up changing his mind: "it needed its own kind of moniker." After thinking about the types of scientific advances and technologies of the era, he settled on calling this period of fiction the "Radium Age."

"The discovery of radium was a game changer, and the technology of radium shows up in all of these stories and novels as this kind of miracle breakthrough," he said. It was also a helpful "metaphor for kind of the idea that we think of matter as stable, but in reality, matter is in motion."

That, he felt, seemed apt. The early 20th century was a period of incredible change, and pointed to a book by Philip Blom called The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 that helped shape his thinking about the changes of years ahead of the First World War. "Social stuff was changing, science was changing, everything is changing really fast," he said. Calling it the Radium age (and pointed out that Marie Curie's career mapped to this period nicely) felt like a fitting description.  

"More cynical than its Victorian precursor, yet less hard-boiled than the sf that followed, in the writings of these visionaries we find acerbic social commentary, shock tactics, and also a sense of frustrated idealism—and reactionary cynicism too—regarding humankind's trajectory," Glenn writes in his series foreword to Voices from the Radium Age.

Over the course of his research, Glenn noted that he'd taken to looking at Radium age era as a sort of proto-science fiction: it was a genre that was still getting its feet and finding its way in the dark that didn't quite have solidified boundaries that would later define "science fiction."

This era of fiction helped pioneer other long-standing tropes that would become common in science fiction: supermen, robots, apocalypses, ecological catastrophes, and more. "One of the things that I discovered was the blurry boundaries between occult and esoteric sorts of science fiction," Glenn explained. "Proto-SF was borrowing from other genres; it was all a little loosey-goosey. We now take it very much for granted that telepathy is a science fiction trope: like 'yeah, this is a thing that could happen in the future,' even though that makes no sense at all. But it's become a part of science fiction. But that was something that was borrowed from the world of occult and spiritual literature and ported over into SF."

Image: Andrew Liptak

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Through his work at io9, Glenn made a huge effort to help define a new era of science fiction, one that helped to reveal to readers a network of influences that inspired the genre that they loved.

Newitz says that his work helped to showcase how "lively and diverse the SF scene was before the 1930s -- and how many literary authors like Jack London had been part of it," and that those "tropes were just being invented. People were already writing post-apocalyptic stories and thinking about cyborg consciousness back then. They were imagining feminist societies, and criticizing racism. All these themes that strike us as incredibly modern today were also modern back then."  

With his work out on io9, Glenn says that he began thinking that "I should re-issue some of these books, because nobody's doing it and people need to know about this stuff." Those works also had an additional advantage: they were in the public domain, meaning that Glenn could take those works and do just that.

In 2012, he began working with his friend and Hilobrow co-editor Matthew Battles, and launched a series of these reissued titles under their own imprint: HiLoBooks. That initial series included ten of these over-looked titles: Jack London's The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling's With the Night Mail, and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses.

Glenn notes that it was a break-even publishing effort, and was happy to have brought a bit more attention to their legacy, and opened up some opportunities to continue to talk about this point in history: Nature invited him to write a paper about the period, and he put together a list of the 100 best Radium Age stories for his own site.

After working on the project for more than a decade, Glenn said that it was time for a break: he boxed up the books ("literally, not figuratively") and stored them away, and turned to new projects.

He hadn't planned on returning to the Radium era, but a couple of years later, MIT Press got in touch with him: the editors at the press explained to him that they'd just begun dipping their toes into exploring science fiction, and invited him to edit a new series that explored the Radium age and its significance. He dragged those boxes back out of his attic, and began re-examining the era again.

MIT Press's The Radium Age series will include some of those previously-republished books that he'd put together under his own imprint years ago: Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man. Some of those original titles won't be included in the series, and Glenn notes that that comes down to a sense of responsibility around modern day cultural sensitivities. "Some of these people, like Rudyard Kipling, are so associated with racism and colonialism and that even though With the Night Mail is incredible piece of science fiction writing, it's really a kind of proto-fascist [book and it doesn't feel like a great idea to reissue it again."

Glenn noted that they might change their minds when it comes to that. "It was a racist era, and a lot of these books have racist and sexist things in them. We're trying to have the authors of our introductions be very careful and sensitive about pointing those out, but there might be some authors who are completely out of the pale at this point."

They won't be shying away from works that would now be seen as problematic: Glenn noted that while there are some novels, like The Clockwork Man that are pretty tame, others like J. J. Connington's Nordenholt's Million "are basically a pro-fascist story." That book, Glenn says, is about a a type of bacteria begins killing plans in the world, and an industrialist hatches a plan to try and save humanity by setting up a stronghold in Scotland, and as he does so, he's incredibly ruthless about their resources, and ends up letting tons of people die — almost to the point of hastening everyone else's demise. The premise, Glenn believes, was an inspiration for Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

"It's a completely fascist vision, but a great story," Glenn says. That volume will be introduced by Matthew Battles, while science historian Evan Hepler-Smith will provide an afterword. "We're trying to gently, carefully, and accurately tease apart the politics and the science and the cultural context."

The goal is to help not only build on Glenn's work at io9 and elsewhere, but continue to build upon it, writing a new chapter in the history of science fiction and fantasy literature, by bringing these titles back for readers to not only enjoy, but learn from. The books highlight some of the genre's formative years and will hopefully provide context for the foundations of the stories that form the bedrock of the entertainment that we consume today. "This was a genre that developed over time," Glenn says. "It was developed by borrowing ideas from other places and trying things out and making mistakes, going too far, being exaggerated, or being cartoonish in some ways, but it all kind of helps us get to where we are today. So if you like science fiction today, you have to thank these folks from back in that era."

Newitz explained that they were "most excited about the books by women and people of color, like Pauline Hopkins and Rose Macaulay—they help to fill in a history that has been neglected for too long."

Glenn said that he had two goals from his 2012 project that he carried over to this new effort. "I want science fiction historians and scholars and the people interested in historical science fiction to realize that there was good science fiction happening before the Golden Age," he explained. "And even to understand that the Golden Age itself was a bit of a misnomer, and which was tied up with the political atmosphere at the time."

The other thing he pointed out is that he "just wants to entertain people, which is why I started my whole reading project: there's a lot of just good, fun adventure stories that have been written over the years that we've lost. So I want to bring these things back to readers today. If you can get over some of the archaic language and obviously things like the racist and sexist attitudes that we're careful to point out, there are some really, really great adventures stories out there."

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MIT Press began reissuing some of Stanislaw Lem's back catalog, and they make for some interesting reading. Here's my overview of the series, which has seen two additional installments since it came out in 2020: Dialogues and The Truth and Other Stories.

Beyond Solaris
New editions explore the many facets of sci-fi icon Stanislaw Lem